Francesca Canepa is the 2018 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) Champion. From Italy, she is a lifelong athlete with a background in elite snowboarding. After UTMB 2019 she will race Vietnam Mountain Marathon 100km.
Last year you won UTMB. This year you’ve won Ultra Trail Jura among other events. How are you feeling about UTMB 2019?
I think it’s always impossible to answer. UTMB is such a big race, with a stellar field of runners, so I can just say I’m feeling ok- my body seems to go well at the moment. My mind is way more complicated to manage!
How will you train and taper from now to UTMB?
I did my last race yesterday, a Vertical Km on Saturday and a 12 km on Sunday, just to push myself a little. From now I will just wait and recover, of course I will run a little, but really a little. I prefer to feel fresh than tired.
Between UTMB and VMM you’ll have just over 3 weeks. What is your plan for recovery and then preparing for your VMM100?
Well, if everything goes as last year, and I won’t have any particular physical issue during UTMB, I will just enjoy my post race week doing very little, train on the following one but without pushing too much and without working on volume, and then rest again before the flight.
We recently saw your post about the difficulty of eating a pre race breakfast at 3am. You won’t have to do that at VMM, but what advice would you give our 70k runners who start at 3am?
I normally hate to eat at 3am, because my body does not appreciate it and I don’t like to force it. So when it is possible, I recommend to enjoy a great dinner with proteins and carbs as well and then just begin to fuel during the race right from the beginning. In any case, you do not have the time to digest a breakfast, so it is pointless to have it in a hurry.
During the race, what food will you carry and what’s your nutrition strategy?
I normally prefer real food, so I like to eat something like a homemade cake or some potatoes with tuna fish, or whole bread with jam. And fruits as well, bananas, watermelon, dried fruits, something like these. And I try to eat something every now and then, not waiting too much before refueling. For drinking, I carry fruit juice and water.
What first inspired you to get into running?
I was just looking for a new sport in which it was possible to still be competitive, after many years spent snowboarding at the highest level. I discovered that endurance was easy for me and I began to try long races after less than a year. I liked and still like to follow my own comfort pace.
You’re both a psychologist and a mother of two – how do you balance training, work and family life?
Training is not a problem because I don’t train too much and I normally train when kids are at school. During summer it is not too complicated because I try to race as much as possible, so between races I recover and can spend with them all the time we need. For work it is quite the same. I work as a freelance, so I manage my work according to everything else.
When you’re not running, how do you like to relax?
My favourite relaxing tool is sauna. I enjoy the warmth and the time alone in it, it is really regenerating. And I like reading books as well, especially French or English books, in order to improve my skills with foreign languages.
You’ve said you find the build up to races stressful, but that you enjoy the process and the feelings that come with it. How do you manage the stress? And do you feel more pressure/stress going to UTMB as the champ?
Stress is really dangerous. In my opinion, trying to just focus on what is inside is key. Everything else does not matter. I do not feel too much pressure on me for UTMB because there are so many great athletes on the starting list that I already consider an award itself the fact to be there with them at the starting line. Then, all that I will have to do is try to do exactly what I did last year. I will just focus on my own feelings and manage my mind. Stress builds up when you allow what is outside to come in and make a mess. For sure it is easier to say this than to do it, but I will try.
What is your strategy for ultra racing?
I never use any heart rate monitor, I prefer to listen to my body, especially because I know it quite well. I walk or run on uphills according to how steep they are, but for sure the best for my performance is to walk as little as possible just because I’m not efficient at walking. I definitely have to work on it because walking can save a lot of energy, it is easier for the body, but I’m really bad at it.
What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses as an ultra runner?
My best strength and my worst enemy in ultra running – my mind. When I’m inspired and focused, my mind is really strong and can lead me to achieve great results. But when I’m not, I can simply quit because I’m no more able to manage it. On the body side, for sure I’m lucky because I have built my body during my life time, because I have been an athlete since I was a child, so my muscles are prepared and strong enough to handle the worst.
What advice would you give to first time ultra runners?
Oh, this is really simple: the best is to take it step by step, day by day, aid station after aid station. Just taking the time you need to build a stronger body and a stronger attitude, I highly recommend not to follow anybody else and just stay tuned in to your own feelings and inspirations.
Do you have a trail running hero or inspiration?
No, I do not. Of course there are some athletes I highly respect and admire, but I follow my own path. I try to assimilate what other people do well, if it is functional for improving myself. But I do not consider anyone as a hero just because they run or are athletes. For sure I admire people that search for challenges, face them and grow accordingly.
Lastly, what are you looking forward to in Vietnam?
I hope to enjoy a completely new country and culture, I really like to discover new races in new landscapes and make new friends. 100 km is a really long way, so they allow me to see a lot and to exchange a lot with people at aid stations and everywhere, so it will be interesting and challenging as well.
It is such a privilege for me to have been chosen for coming there. Can’t wait to be there!!!
Want to read more Q and As? Check out this one with Hong Kong multiple champion, Fredelyn Alberto.